Stress and anxiety affect us on all levels. Be it the body's pounding heart, the rapid pace of breath, overwhelming feelings, racing thoughts, or a disconnection from our deeper beliefs, stress weaves its way into all levels of our experience. Yoga Therapy teaches us to understand how to address our stress on all layers of being.
Ancient yogis perceived a person as being comprised of five layers (koshas): 1) body, 2) life energy/breath, 3) mind (feelings and lower thoughts), 4) intellect (wisdom and discernment), and 5) spirit/higher self. Each of these five layers exists within the next, moving from the obvious to the subtle, and each one gives us tools for coping with stress and anxiety. By working with stress through your entire being, you become more resilient against anxiety and better able to connect to confidence and peace of mind.
The following five tips give you practical tools to address the impacts of stress on each layer of your being. Note that the obvious layers of body and breath/life energy can bring immediate relief while the more subtle levels, such as mind, intellect, and spirit, offer greater impact in reducing chronic stress and anxiety.
Yoga Tip #1: Get in Your Body
It's easy to observe stress in the body: muscular tension, achiness, or a quick heartbeat. Yoga postures are a simple, immediate means of coming back to the body and rediscovering a sense of capability. You don't need any yoga experience to make this happen, just a commitment to being in your body and appreciating the sense of strength you find there. That said, if you wish to follow a yoga sequence, try the simple movements described below.
Begin by widening your feet about double-shoulder-width apart, up to about a meter (yard). Your toes can face straight ahead or out on a 45 degree angle. As you bend your knees, doing your best to keep them over the ankles, raise your arms overhead. Feel a tubular strength around the abdominal girdle, as if your muscles were a corset hugging gently towards your spine. Feel this strength connect down through the front, back, and inner parts of your legs, all the way through your feet.
Straighten your legs by pushing your body up and away from the earth, feeling rooted and supported. Bring your hands to your hips and bend lightly to one side. Inhale to center and exhale to the other side. If you wish, you may repeat this action a few times, being sure to keep the hips secure.
Once you have returned to the center, stretch each arm out to its own side, in line with the shoulders. You might imagine that you are a 5-pointed star, with each hand, foot, and your head creating the five points. Look over your right hand and exhale long and slow as you revolve your torso to the right. Return to center and do the same thing to the left. You may repeat this twisting action a few times before returning to center and bringing your feet hip-width apart.
Inhale your arms overhead, raising the chest and pushing the chin forward and up. Exhale to reach out of the hips and fold forward, dangling the head from the neck. Inhale and roll or, if you have never had back issues, sweep up to the overhead reach again. You may repeat this backward to forward bending action a few times before returning to center.
After completing this simple sequence of yoga postures, notice the effect on your body. Are your muscles more relaxed? Was there a change in your heart beat? What about your sense of heat and cool, peace and busyness, tension and relaxation? The physical changes may be obvious or subtle, but they are there. Trust that these yoga movements have begun to assuage your stress and anxiety.
Yoga Tool #2: Watch Your Breath…Now!
Our first layer of being, the body, holds within it the life energy or breath (prana). Anytime you become aware of your breath you connect to the present moment. It is relaxing to focus on the now rather than lament the past or fret about the future. If you have the time to sit and breathe quietly, it is likely that you are currently safe and stress-free (even though your mind could come up with things to worry about). Because slow, conscious breathing is grounding and calming, it is the most commonly-used technique in crisis counselling.
There are many possible instructions for breathing practice; however, for this article we will give you a simple one: notice your breath right now, and then allow it to slow and deepen.
From a yoga perspective, the life energy/breath layer is between the layer of the body and the layer of the mind, thereby serving as a bridge between the two. A deep, steady pace of breath is relaxing to the body and balances the mind by holding it in the now, where all is well.
Yoga Tool #3: Let Your Emotions Guide You
Within the life energy/breath layer, and even more subtle, is the mind—our sensory perceptions, emotions, and busy thoughts. When the mind is in pain, we often try to get away from uncomfortable feelings by suppressing them. Pushing our feelings down actually leads to more stress. As the avoidance pattern builds, years of unresolved emotions get stored within us and await their chance to come out. Each time a stressor arises the stored pain resurfaces, trying to express itself and release. Your stress levels may not just be about the present moment, but all the other suppressed emotional experiences as well! By listening to your emotions on a daily basis, you can get a better handle on the roots of your stress.
Take a little time every day to tune into the information your emotions present, without getting wrapped up in the suffering or what you can do to feel better. Even if only for a moment, notice that your emotions are guiding you. All you have to do is tune in.
Yoga Tip #4: Tell a Different Story
The layer of the intellect is more subtle than the mind. "Intellect" is more than just intelligence; it is the voice of wisdom that says, "I may be stressed right now but this too shall pass." The intellect holds our underlying beliefs and exists in the realm of ideas—the story we tell ourselves. It helps you relate to the spirit/higher self and discerns what will bring us closer to that authentic being.
When a situation has you stressed, pause and notice the story you are telling. Are you making up outcomes that haven't happened yet? If so, are they the outcomes you want or those you wish to avoid? What are your assumptions? Are you projecting past experiences onto this stress?
Now tell a different story. You may make up the best outcome possible and focus on that. Better yet, focus on what you can do right now to create that best-case outcome. If there is nothing you can do, then focusing on stress does not make it better. Let your intellect discern where to set your focus and choose the path that brings you closest to your higher self.
Yoga Tip #5: Remember You Are a Spiritual Being
Yoga does not define your spirituality for you. You decide what "spiritual" means. In this article we are talking about your spirit as the you-that-you-are: your authentic, or higher, self. There are many ways to define and experience this and we encourage you to choose the one that works best. The layer of the higher self is very still and quiet. In fact, it is so subtle that when we feel stressed, not only is it difficult to connect with, we may forget it is even there! Try the following technique to solidify memories of your spiritual self.
Think of a time when you felt completely at peace and totally free to be yourself. Remember where you were, how things looked, what sounds were around you, and any other details. Notice how calm and content you felt in that moment. You may even remember the rhythm of your breath or upliftedness of your thoughts. This is a memory of connection to your spirit/higher self.
When our bodies are tense, breath erratic, and minds racing so we can't hear our inner wisdom, it is challenging to connect to the layer of the higher self (although it is always there). The higher self, once the mind is quiet enough to sense it, can guide all of our everyday moments and color all of our activities and interactions with peacefulness and inspiration. When we unite the layers of ourselves, the spirit/higher self shines through all of them.
Yoga philosophy describes five layers of human beings: body, life energy/breath, mind/feelings, intellect, and spirit/higher self. As you work with yourself on these layers, remember that you are a whole person, not five separate pieces. Each layer wraps around the next and stress affects each one. When you apply these tips to remove stress, you are perceiving both obvious and subtle aspects of yourself. By working with the subtle layers, your own deep sense of meaning seeps into everyday moments, making them less stressful as you enjoy the goodness of life as it is now!